Côte Vermeille

For now, the Côte Vermeille is dank. Spring is meant to arrive soon, but winter is haunting us too.

The reds and scarlets of cinnabar were scarcely visible on the drive from Barcelona.

Instead, Villages Fantômes and Villes Mortes lined the Vermillion coast; the shuttered seafood restaurants only flickered because of the falling reflection from the neon-green pharmacy signs next door. There’s no anchovies around here, but for those in need, plenty of aspirin.

We piled half our life belongings’ into Diego and his father’s taxis.

Moments before, I took a final glance at Mercat de Galvany on Carrer Santaló opposite. There were a few determined shoppers still milling around. The crest painted into the exposed red-brick was the one colourful antidote to the March grey and the incessant bad news about Coronavirus. Through our fourth-floor window we could see the proud Catalan flag and San Jordí cross, a triumph of red, yellow and white.

Further down the street, high on a terrace, another Catalan flag fluttered in the wind. How terrible it is to see such a city potentially floored by a virus borne tens of thousands of kilometres away, from a person eating a bat, or an ant-eater, or whatever it was.

There wasn’t anytime to say goodbye to my cousin, or her Catalan husband or their sweet kids nor the children I teach. In any case, we couldn’t, not close up. We left behind bags of tinned goods and pizzas I wish I’d consumed for the communal cleaner in the block, who increasingly resembled the Count from Thomas Mann’s ‘Death in Venice’. Conchi’s pale cheeks contrasted with her rouge lipstick: a siren call for help.

There weren’t the police patrols we’d been warned about on the city perimeter but masks covered our faces; we were anxious. We were discouraged from crossing into France, we were advised it was improbable we’d be allowed to enter, we should aim to find a local option.

The problem is that we don’t in fact have a home, not a permanent one at any rate. Understandably, Spanish authorities were closing hotels and telling tourists to vacate all short-term accommodation by March 26th. The short-term tenancy we’d organised was due to end on March 31st. We were hearing about ice rinks in Madrid requisitioned so they could be used as mass morgues. Care homes for the elderly have been handed over to Spain’s Ministry of Defence. They made grim discoveries this past week, reportedly finding older people abandoned.

I learn my own Grandmother’s care home now has two cases of women with Coronavirus, who have sadly been taken to hospital. Nothing in this crisis leaves us with simple choices. Should I take one of the last flights to London in case my Grandmother passes? Where exactly would I stay? Again, I don’t have a home. Or is that a feeble excuse? Shouldn’t I be there to provide shopping supplies for my now isolated father? I feel selfish, but then again, last year I gave my father a kidney. How many sacrifices should I be making, exactly? There are no absolutes when anarchy reigns.

We climbed the hills to Port Bou. As I breathed out, the mask covering my big nose, my spectacles steamed up. When I exhaled, I couldn’t distinguish my clouded lenses from the clouds in the sky. Olive groves carpeted the foothills to the mountains but the earth was arid, so too were the summer-resorts with lifeless dinghies and boats.

As Diego twisted the wheel, I thought about the next few months. Speculation got me nowhere; there will be moments of joy interlaced with profound moments of regret and I fear, some degree of despair. Wearing his own mask, Diego and I didn’t communicate but he drove determinedly. We saw a post painted with the original twelve stars of the European Union: France lay just metres beyond. Nobody seemed to be around.

Turning one more corner high above rocky coves, through the mountain mist we saw a throng of police men. We’d reached the border post at Port Bou, through which half a million Republican refugees fled early in 1939, at the height of the Spanish Civil War. It was part of an historic retreat. It was scarcely believable a post even existed in this age of open borders and globalised travel. And here we were beating our own historic retreat.

Since the treaties of Bayonne, the border has been physically marked on the ground by 602 cairns showing the division between the two countries. Wikipedia claims these markers are numbered from west to east: one located on the Bidasoa and the last in Cap Cerbere, marked with consecutive numbers and letters.

The moustached French border guard asked me to hand over my ‘attestation’. We’d practised half-a-dozen times what we’d say. In the circumstances, he was happy to hear my partner in the car behind was French and we were heading for a private residence in Port Vendres. He waved us on. We got out of the taxis, walked past a switch house straight from a Christopher Nolan film-set and with whatever groceries we could muster from our Barcelona apartment, masks still clinging to our faces, we paced downhill to Cerbère where the one local still working took us onward.

She pointed out where the fish market usually operates, even the church next door was closed. The Catalan restaurants weren’t serving starchy Pa Amb Tomàquet but instead were darkened, except for the plastic white chairs all piled high inside.

The waves of the Mediterranean were restless, murmuring; heavy rain clouds appeared, for how long, nobody knows. This is the coastline, in the Pyrénées-Orientales, where Picasso and Matisse famously painted in broad brushstrokes of passionate pinks and, yes, possibly vermillion too. For now, the Côte Vermille is dank. Spring is meant to arrive soon, but winter haunts us too.



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